Volcanic Events and Volcano Preparedness 2019

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Editors Note: There has been an increase in seismic and volcanic activity in many regions. Today we are going to revisit this interesting post by Tagir Kabirov at the University of Ufa. I grew up in the North Cascades of Washington state so volcanoes were something I could see from my bedroom window. Mount St. Helens continues to be the most active volcano in the Cascade range. It exploded before I was born but my parents remember it waking them up hundreds of miles away. Mount Rainier that overlooks Seattle, is a volcano over 14,000 feet tall!

When I was a kid, I always wondered what it would be like if Mount Baker exploded. We used to go to Baker Lake and swim and fish when I was a kid and sometimes when I was in that water I thought about how the lake water near Mount St. Helens boiled when it erupted and a once gorgeous ecological area looked like a nuclear blast had hit. 

Before we get into Tagir’s article, I wanted to list a few of the concerning volcano related stories that have made their way into the news here lately so you can get an idea what I mean about the increase of activity being concerning. Remember that volcanic eruptions and seismic activity can lead to devastating events such as massive tsunamis that can affect a lot of people. A tsunami that originates in Hawaii and that is of sufficient scale only allows 3 or 4 hours for the populations on the West coast to get to higher ground with whatever they can grab. For more info on tsunami prep and survival check out this post.

Mauna Loa, Hawaii

There has been an increase in seismic activity at the Mauna Loa volcano. At the time experts do not think there is an immediate cause for concern but it does show that an eruption may happen sooner than anyone would like. Last year the Kilauea eruption caused fissures to open up at the base of the volcano and led to many people’s homes being abandoned or destroyed. The Kilauea volcano is particularly concerning because of the risk of part of the island breaking off and falling into the sea and thus creating a massive tsunami that would affect the entire Western seaboard of the United States.

Raikoke, Northeast Of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk

This tiny 2 square mile island has been under Russian control since World War II. For 100 years it sat dormant and docile in the Sea of Okhotsk before violently erupting on June 22, 2019. The plume seen from the International Space Station would leave anyone awestruck.  There were 9 individual explosions on the luckily uninhabited island.

Mount Manam and Mount Ulawun  Papua New Guinea

On June 26, 2019 both Mount Manam and Mount Ulawun awoke and forced 15,000 villagers to flee. While no deaths were reported, a lot of homes and wells were destroyed. Villagers stayed at rescue centers but food and water supplies were severely disrupted. Since the eruption coated everything in thin slivers of volcanic material, residents are going to have to be very careful in the aftermath to avoid lung conditions.

Stromboli, Italy

The volcano at Stromboli has been actively erupting on some level since the 30s but on July 3, 2019, it had a more severe eruption that caused fires and also killed one person that was walking with a friend. The volcano is a tourist attraction with many people hiking to the top to look into the crater in hopes of seeing small bursts of magma.

Popocatépetl Volcano, Central Mexico

On June 29 and 30, 2019 the highly active Popocatépetl experienced 5 explosions and an additional 169 exhalations of steam and ash. The volcano has been very active since 1994 when it woke up after 50 years of dormancy. The volcano is just over 43 miles from Mexico City, a population center of 21.6 million people. 

Here is Tagir’s advice on volcanoes and preparedness in 2019.


Volcanoes and Preparedness

I always knew that volcanoes could bring our civilization to its knees, if not destroy it completely. There are a few global challenges for humanity, and the ancient Roman god of fire is undoubtedly one of them. I said volcano, and you have probably imagined a cone-shaped mountain, erupting fire and ash, right? And most of them obey that description – old, solid, grumpy and, on occasion, making some trouble for local settlements. You might even witness one during your travels across seas and continents. Of course, a selfie with an erupting volcano is something special! You can’t hold it. As well as those overheated gases, that were relieved from inside pressure to spread at a near-sonic speed cremating every living creature on their way. Hope you’ve been streaming to your cloud!

But let’s take a minute for a serious discussion. Is it something worth worrying about? Frankly, most of us have only seen a live volcano on a screen. And look, the majority of them are located on the edges of tectonic plates and will only be a problem for island and coastal people, right?

Well, no. Even if you’re living thousands of miles away from the shore, you will still be affected. All that chunk of GDP being raised on the coastal shelf will shrink dramatically, and people will need places to go. For our awareness, United States Geological Service has just listed these 18 North American volcanoes as “very high” risk.

Credit to USGS, once again

That’s quite a lot of red. But all of those have been behaving considerably quiet lately, so why should anything change?  Fortunately, global natural disasters did not occur long enough and memories of their terrors faded. Unfortunately, natural processes are cyclic, and new massive cataclysms are inevitable. Remember the funnily named volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, shaking Iceland in 2010 Back then it could even have a positive effect on the environment, considering it only produced about 40% of CO2, compared to the part of European air traffic that had to be halted. It was a big deal for the affected countries, not used to much transport delays. These local troubles were just a TV report for the rest of the world.

The game changes radically if an eruption is big and long enough to cause global effects. A persistent dust cloud over a continent or two will create a massive climate change, followed by acid rains and unprecedented refugee waves. Food shortages will become an immediate threat as well as diseases spreading throughout the affected population of humans and animals alike.  If we consider the worst case scenario, we might look back to the great Permian Extinction, which was caused by massive eruptions in Siberia about 250 million years ago and led to unparalleled extinction. Few animals bigger than cats survived it. Many millions of years later some other civilization may rise on our bones if we can’t find a way to prevent the great dying of our own. To do so, let’s take a closer look at the tectonic dragon and its heads.

Danger factors of volcanic activity:

Lava. Maybe the most feared and recognized, but quite easily avoidable factor. I mean, you can see it coming, bursting from the top and some side channels, usually predicted by the upcoming smoke. Though a liquid enough lava stream on a steep enough hill can become a racing challenge. Especially with a bonus of melting icecap rushing down. If you see those molten springs, you have probably come too close. Back up a little.

From a definition of lava, being a magmatic substance, which has lost most of the dissolved gases to a much thinner atmospheric pressure, we get our second and much more insidious danger factor – pyroclastic waves, – extremely heated gases, which can boil running water on contact. Spoiler: you mostly consist of water and will boil too. Respect the fire god. Keep your distance.

Ash, ash, ash, IT’S EVERYWHERE!

Well, it’s not ash at all, in spite of being called that way. Forget the soft, dissolving fire or cigarette ash. This one mainly consists of tiny pieces of molten rock, solidified in the atmosphere. Small and light particles, but solid and very abrasive. Cover your breathing hole, take your belongings and leave.

Dust and ash, nasty enough on their own, with a prolonged eruption, become the ultimate villain, stealing our most precious resource – sunlight. Exhausting darkness killing off plants, ocean plankton, food, and eventually oxygen is not a glorious end for humanity. We’re all feeding on the sun. Indoor farms with lights and air filters may go a long way, considering you’ve got enough fuel. Enough canned sunlight. Most persistent might survive.

Tephra. Sometimes the cork is just too tight, and it’s easier to break the bottle. Incoming pressure may not find a quick enough way through the main entrance and burst a mountain open. During the process, rock sizes from shrapnel to twice as big as your car get enough kinetic energy to shame any modern weapon launchers. Again, the best protection is distance. Also, thankfully light is way faster than sound when you see something explode you usually have a second to fall to the ground and open your mouth as wide as you can. Meeting a shockwave while laying down is incommensurably better than otherwise. Also, those jaw bones covering your ear channels might save your hearing for the future evacuation routine.

Earth rumble. Infrasound is low-frequency sonic waves, indistinguishable by the human ear. Some animals seem to be more aware, becoming uneasy and trying to escape the place shortly before an eruption or an earthquake. Subjective reactions include stress, panic, and psychosis, all of which are debatably helpful in case of an emergency.

A discerning reader will notice, that most of the evading danger advice sums up to running away.

Well, these are basic rules that work for many hazards – minimize your exposure, maximize your distance (if possible evacuating perpendicular to the vector of danger factor), and use any screening (filters, walls, landscape) available. Most of your pets will instinctively try to do the same (maybe not the filter part), because evolution gave them legs and limbs, unlike those doomed plants. Retreat or adaptation, fight or flee – those were always the ultimate choices. But adapting to extreme heat and toxic gases might be a little hard if you’re not a bacterium.  Thus, fleeing is usually the best option. And if it is not a civilization-ending event, your id, a smartphone and a toughly packed backpack for immediate needs are all you need. But what if it is? What if we run out of places to run to?

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